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Accounting for “subjective culture”

In this article, Harry Triandis examines culture as either material or subjective. Subjective culture includes ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and is the primary focus of this course and of the interculturalist. This article explains the concepts, elements, and methods for study

Subjective Culture (Summary)

The influential cross-cultural psychologist Harry Triandis noted that culture can be divided into material or objective culture and subjective culture.

  • Material culture refers to products made by man, such as dress and tools.
  • Subjective culture, is the intangible part of culture, which could include ideas, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs.

Attitudes are ideas complicated by a mix of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral factors and they differ considerably across cultures. Norms and roles are behavioral guidelines. The sequence of behaviors (i.e., tasks) can also vary across cultures. Values as well as value orientations (a broader set) represent what is generally desirable in a culture.

We can study subjective culture using two lenses. “Etic” refers to the general categories that can be found in all cultures, which serve as common grounds for comparison. “Emic” means categories that might only make sense in a given culture, which makes cultures unique and meaningful to those who belong to it.

But researchers should be aware of some common methodological issues in cross-cultural comparisons.

First, one can not make a test, scale, or inventory “etic” simply by translating it into another language and using it in another culture. Researchers must vigorously validate the constructs of interest. Also, it is recommended that both etic and emic items be included in an instrument designed for cross-cultural use, and that the sampling include people of diverse demographic groups.

In summary, subjective culture contains elements that reflect cultural differences , either as etic or emic items. Cross-cultural studies require extra effort to validate constructs and eliminate alternative explanations.

Triandis, H. C. (2002). Subjective Culture. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(2). http://dx.doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1021

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This article is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)